In the sports world, hyperbole is commonplace. This, however, is more of a fact than an opinion: There will never be another Derek Jeter.
Scoff if you choose, but the announcement of Jeter's impending retirement doesn't change the narrative of his career; it simply illuminates a player that will be unmatched for the rest of sports history.
By 2020, Derek Jeter will be enshrined in Cooperstown on a plaque for future generations to admire. Yet for the generations of fans that had the chance to watch his two-decade career unfold, one of the most unique, decorated and storied careers took place between second and third base in Yankee Stadium.
When factoring in the traits that made Jeter special—on-field dominance, leadership, class, off-the-field fame and nary an ounce of negative publicity while living and playing in New York—all stand out as impressive.
Individually, they are attributes that any executive would look for in a player. Combined, they form the backbone of an irreplaceable star.
As with any all-time great player, it's instructive to start with on-field performance.
While proclamations of Jeter's achievements often begin with words like "intangibles" or "clutch," his raw, unfiltered career statistics are eye-opening and worthy of proper distinction.
The big numbers—five World Series titles, 13 All-Star Game appearances, 2000 World Series MVP, eight finishes in the top 10 of AL MVP voting, 3,316 hits, 20 postseason home runs—are good enough for enshrinement in Cooperstown.
His 1999 season—.349/.438/.552, 219 hits, 346 total bases, 24 home runs, 8.0 bWAR—should be remembered as one of the top 10 seasons in the history of the shortstop position.
But if you dig a little deeper, it's clear that Jeter's other attributes actually masked what he has been since 1996: one of the 25 greatest offensive players in the history of the sport.
|Greatest Career Offensive WAR in MLB History|
Using oWAR, or Baseball-Reference's calculation of offensive value, Jeter enters the 2014 season ranked 21st in baseball history. By the end of his final season, calling him one of the top 20 offensive players ever won't be debatable.
The names ahead of Jeter are remarkable, but New York's shortstop stands out when you think about the names not listed. From George Brett to Ken Griffey to Manny Ramirez, Derek Jeter's bat was more valuable than some of the best sluggers to ever live.
If Jeter owned nothing more than offensive greatness, Cooperstown would still come calling five years after his retirement.
Yet as we know, there's more to the story.
On the field, Jeter was known as a player willing to do anything it took to win. From hitting behind a runner to dropping the barrel and pulling a home run in October, he was an unselfish star.
That combination of talent and unselfishness helped lead the Yankees to the postseason in 16 of 17 years he was a full-time player. As Sweeny Murti of WFAN pointed out, the career playoff games (158) overshadow a bigger point about year-to-year contention: Jeter has appeared in just one game in which the Yankees were eliminated from postseason consideration.
As a leader and clubhouse presence, Jeter did things his way. If you scour the Internet for stories of Jeter giving loud, uproarious pre-game speeches, you'll likely come away empty handed. If the goal is to reminisce about the moment Jeter chewed out a teammate for putting in less than 100 percent, you're wasting your time.
From the moment Jeter walked into the Yankees clubhouse in 1996, he was the leader. His personality didn't shine through when the media was present, but he did what his team needed on a daily basis. Those speeches—albeit rare—came away from cameras and reporters' notebooks. Pep talks to slumping teammates came in private.
David Cone, one of the greatest big-game pitchers in history and former MLBPA player representative, told YES Network's Jack Curry that the team waited for Jeter's personality to falter during his rookie season. When it never once did, a leader emerged.
"We were waiting for him to make a mistake, like a cop with a radar gun," said Cone. "He never did. Derek handled himself as well as anyone could."
That leadership may have been innate, but it was also born out of natural class.
From ESPN senior writers to freelance reporters to the 25th man on the roster, Jeter was able to connect with everyone he came in contact with. New York Daily News baseball writer Andy Martino described his first meeting with Jeter, when the former was a freelance reporter.
"Across the room, Jeter was at his locker. When I approached with my wobbly voice and rookie questions, he sat patiently and answered all of them. None of what he said was particularly interesting—it almost never was—but he presented himself as classy, professional and contained," Martino wrote.
Contained may be the perfect word for Jeter's demeanor with the media. It's also a symbol of why New York fans know so little about their favorite player.
On the field, his career has been on full display. Reliving the greatest moments is a click away.
Off the field? Despite endless pictures of beautiful women, commercials and endorsements, Jeter is guarded. His next inflammatory quote will be his first. The same can be said for issues with law enforcement or anything that could be embarrassing for the Yankees or baseball.
Amazingly, in an era of social media, blogs and incessant media coverage, Jeter has never been the subject of ridicule, scorn or scandal. His ability to navigate the media in New York is almost as impressive as the .338/.408/.503 career slash line against left-handed pitching.
New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman echoed that sentiment in a column about Jeter's legacy.
"It allowed him to keep a pristine image, shun scandal, rise above an age when so much is spilled into the public swill for dissection and ridicule," Sherman wrote.
If avoiding controversy for 20 years in New York is impressive, casting aside any doubt during baseball's Steroid Era is remarkable.
In the 21-plus years in which I have served as Commissioner, Major League Baseball has had no finer ambassador than Derek Jeter. Since his championship rookie season of 1996, Derek has represented all the best of the National Pastime on and off the field. He is one of the most accomplished and memorable players of his—or any—era.
That statement isn't just true; it's a glimpse into Bud Selig's plight as the leader of baseball.
From Mark McGwire to Sammy Sosa to Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens to Alex Rodriguez to Ryan Braun, the brightest stars of Selig's era have been implicated with performance-enhancing drug scandals. One of the few to avoid any shrewd of doubt from a cynical era of fans: Derek Jeter.
It may take years, but another offensive shortstop will emerge to rival Jeter's career numbers. After observing Jeter's demeanor and brilliance with the New York media, a star will arrive with a similar approach. Before long, the next Yankee captain will be named, perhaps with a similar "lead by example" mantra.
In an age of incessant media coverage, an athlete will be lucky enough to stay out of negative headlines. As in any era of sport, champions will garner multiple rings.
When separating Jeter's traits, his greatness isn't unique. Splicing them together, however, puts him in a unique light: One of a kind.
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